Retirement, Internet, Paperwork, Bonds, Autos, Stocks, Fraud, Long-Distance Fees, Teens, Taxes
Despite the stock market boom of the 1990s, Americans between ages 47 and 64 were in worse financial shape for retirement in 1998 than their counterparts were in 1983, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. How much worse? Near-retirees with assets of $250,000 to $999,999 had about 10 percent less set aside for retirement than their 1983 counterparts (numbers are adjusted for inflation). Those with assets of between $100,000 and $249,999 had more than 30 percent less.
The only exception was the very wealthy. In 1998, older investors with assets of more than $1 million had more than 40 percent more stashed away for retirement than in 1983.
You may cut hours off those infuriating motor vehicle department waits by visiting a new Web site. You can get a list of the documents you need to buy, sell, or register a car in any state, and you can also download the documents at www.nadaguides.com.
The service costs $19.95 for one-time access to paperwork for title, tax, inspection, transfer of ownership, and other documentation. The site is run by NADA Appraisal Guides and Automotive Titling, which provides title and registration services to automotive dealerships and other companies.
Nearly three-fifths of the subscribers to ConsumerReports.org say they've found at least one virus on their home computer within the past two years. More than 15 percent of those with infected computers suffered some damage to programs or data, according to a survey taken by the online magazine of Consumers Union.
The National Cyber Security Alliance, a partnership of government and business, offers some tips on how to protect your computer at its Web site at www.staysafeonline.info :
Use antivirus software and update it regularly. Consumer Reports gives top ratings to three software packages: Norton AntiVirus 2002 by Symantec, McAfee VirusScan 6.0 by Network Associates and PC-cillin 2002 by Trend Micro.
Don't open e-mail from strangers.
Disconnect from the Internet when you're not using it, especially if you have a high-speed connection.
Use a firewall. Consumer Reports gives top ratings to ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 by Zone Labs and Norton Personal Firewall 2002 by Symantec.
Use hard-to-guess passwords.
Unless you really need to share files with other systems, turn off the file-sharing capacity of your computer operating system.
Buy a Series I savings bond before Nov. 1 and you'll earn only 2.57 percent in interest, the lowest yield offered since they were introduced in 1998. But don't rush out to dump any I Bonds you already own. Depending on when you bought your bonds, your payout could be as high as 4.17 percent, according to www.savingsbonds.gov , a Web site run by the Bureau of the Public Debt.
The bonds were designed to help investors keep up with inflation, and are based on a combination of two interest rates: a fixed rate of return that remains the same for the life of the bond, and an inflation rate which is changed on May 1 and Nov. 1 of each year. You can cash in an I bond any time after six months, but you'll forfeit three months' worth of earnings if you cash it in during the first five years.
Now that patriotism is back in vogue, you might feel better about driving a foreign car if you knew that it was really built in the USA. The American International Automobile Dealers Association says 32 foreign cars are now built in 14 American assembly plants:
Acura CL, TL
BMW X5, Z3
Honda Accord, Civic, Odyssey
Isuzu Ascender, Axiom, Rodeo, Rodeo Sport
Mazda 626,Truck, Tribute
Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eclipse Spyder, Galant
Nissan Altima, Frontier, Quest, Xterra
Subaru Baja, Legacy, Outback
Toyota Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Sequoia, Sienna, Tacoma, Tundra
New SEC regulations will try to limit questionable influences on financial analysts. The rules, which take effect by Nov. 1, specify that analysts can't be supervised by investment banking departments, and won't be able to offer favorable ratings to a company as a way of attracting its investment banking business. Stock analysts also have to publicly fess up if they own shares in companies they are recommending. They'll be banned from trading stock in a company they cover for 30 days before publishing a research report, and five days afterwards.
Nearly 60 percent of teenagers plan to get their first credit card before they graduate from college, but many don't have a good idea of how they work, according to a survey released by the National Consumers League. More than half of the teens surveyed mistakenly said that a credit card represents only an informal agreement to repay the debt.
In addition, more than two-thirds wrongly believe that it's safer to pay for online purchases with a check or money order than by credit card; more than half mistakenly believe that businesses must go through a screening process to prove they're legitimate before they can put up a Web site; and nearly three-quarters falsely believe that it's illegal for banks to share their personal financial information with affiliated companies.
A new scam could help crooks to empty your bank account, warns the federal Treasury Department. A phony letter on bank letterhead asks recipients to verify their tax exemption status by filling out a bogus enclosed tax form, labeled "W-9095." The form, which appears to be official, asks for account names, passwords, PIN numbers, and other identifying information.
If you were tricked into returning the fraudulent form, inform your bank and the police department. Consider closing the affected accounts. Ask the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert in your file by calling Equifax (1-800-525-6285), Experian (1-888-EXPERIAN), and TransUnion (1-800-680-7289).
If you want to trim your long distance bill, consider a small phone company. Seven companies listed by SaveOnPhone.com, which ranks long distance plans, beat the 5-cents-a-minute plans offered by AT&T, Sprint, and MCI, and without conditions. Capsule Communications (www.cognigenld.com ) charges just 3.9 cents a minute for state-to-state calls, and you won't have to wait until bedtime to dial. To find a long distance carrier, go to www.saveonphone.com, or try other Web sites that compare phone rates, such as www.tollchaser.com.
You can get a chance to tell off the IRS by volunteering to be a member of the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel. Members listen to other taxpayers and tell the agency how to improve customer service. The new panel, which replaces the old Citizen Advocacy Panel, will convene in Washington, DC, in October. To qualify, you must be a US citizen, pay all your federal taxes, and pass an FBI Name Check. You need to commit up to 300 hours during the year. To apply, visit the panel's Web site at www.improveirs.org .
Yvonne Wollenberg. Financial Beat. Medical Economics 2002;12:8.